Field biology modules give undergrads hands-on experiential learning

Undergraduate students studying biology at York University will have the opportunity to do hands-on field biology learning and research – an experience they would not otherwise have in a regular course at university.

York is one of 15 universities that participates in the Ontario Universities Program in Field Biology (OUPFB), and the Department of Biology in the Faculty of Science has organized several modules for the OUPFB.

Students doing field work

Modules run for approximately two weeks, and students from participating universities are able to take courses hosted by other institutions, giving them a broad selection of field courses to choose from.

This year, Laura McKinnon, a biology professor from Glendon, will teach the course “Ecological Monitoring in an Urban System”.

This field course will be based in the secluded Don River setting of Glendon Campus, which is part of Toronto’s extensive ravine system. The course combines short in-laboratory instructional sessions with daily field excursions to natural areas in the GTA, where students will master ecological sampling techniques. Students will complete a group research project at the end of the course.

Students doing field work in Belize

York’s Department of Biology has organized some exciting courses in the past. For instance, biology Professor Alex Mills, who currently serves as associate dean of students in the Faculty of Science, has previously run courses titled “Field Ornithology” (May 2012) and “Canadian Shield Biodiversity” (August 2014), both of which were based at Algonquin Park.

Mills also led a course called “Tropical Ecology” (February 2014), in which he took a group of students to Belize. The students spent seven days at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education, and explored lowland tropical rainforest and completed an on-site field research project. In the final days of the trip, the students travelled to the South Water Caye Marine Reserve for guided reef tours and ecology.

“I am really lucky to be able to teach undergraduates in the field,” said Mills. “Lecturing builds a foundation of knowledge, but there is nothing more delightful than teaching a small group of students in the field, where they learn in a natural setting. Rates of learning are very steep during an intensive two-week field course, and levels of engagement often soar.”

In August 2016, biology Professor Christopher Lortie led a field course at the University of California Rancho Marino Reserve, which is home to multiple ecosystems and habitats, including rocky beaches and coastal grasslands and shrubs. He runs the course every two years, and during the course, Lortie and his students camp there for two weeks to conduct research on native and invasive grasslands.

Students conduct a field assessment

The purpose of the course is to teach experimental design and the principles of field ecology research and to collect meaningful evidence associated with major ecological issues.

“A really important component of research and education is experiencing not just the challenges, but also the beauty and the dynamic nature of these ecosystems,” said Lortie. “If only every course could be this experiential. For ecology and environmental sciences, environmental studies, even organismal work, if you can get outside, that’s the best thing.”

The modules give undergraduate students an opportunity to experience what it is like to be a field biologist, and courses are offered on an international scale.

For course outlines or more information, visit the OUPFB website at or contact York’s OUPFB coordinators Dawn Bazely at or Patty Lindsay at

OUPFB courses are just one category of field courses coordinated by York’s Department of Biology. To learn about all field course offerings, visit